18. THE HOOLIGANS SAVE A LIFE
Our squad had built up one hell of a reputation for being violent assholes. We were proud of that reputation. We hadn’t started out that way, though. Before Slim became our squad leader, we were little more than the bastard team that regularly screwed everything up.
During field training, we failed almost every test thrown at us. We completely lacked the motivation to do anything and generally didn’t care to improve it. Soldiers like us needed firm leadership to put us in line. Slim was that leader.
Slim was more than firm, though. He was an unrelenting psychopath who would fly off the handle at the littlest thing. He would scream, yell, and throw things. He would get so angry whatever the hell he was screaming wouldn’t even make sense. He threatened to beat and kill us if we stepped out of line. Honestly, I kind of believed him. Under Slim’s watchful, crazy eyes, we fell into line. We started acting like him, too.
I once told Slim he treated us like trained pit bulls. “You beat us, mistreat us, barely feed us, and every once in a while you let us off the chain to attack someone,” I said.
It wasn’t entirely a joke. Harsh treatment and corporal punishment had been linked to utter viciousness during wartime. A lot of historians chalk up the terrible brutality of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II to their mistreatment during training. Not that Slim was a Japanese military historian or anything. The only book I ever saw him even start reading was the biography of George W. Bush. Insanity and sadism are timeless, though.
The reason I mention the squad’s upbringing is that one of the main missions for allied forces in Afghanistan is the so-called “Hearts and Minds” campaign. These missions are the ones you see on CNN when a high-ranking officer cuts a big stupid ribbon for an Afghan school or hospital that cost an obscene amount of American taxpayer dollars to build.
They look pretty for the camera but never accomplish anything. Most of the time, whatever we build ends up never being used. Other times, the Taliban just moves in and turns it into the local command post. Then the Air Force bombs it, returning the area to its natural state.
It became clear to our commanders early in our deployment that Second Squad was absolutely terrible at Hearts and Minds missions. They pretty much forbade us from going on them. Instead, they held us in reserve to raid houses or go kicking in doors searching for weapons. They used violence to fight violence.
But patrolling a war zone wasn’t all kicking in doors and capturing Taliban commanders. Most of the time it was mindless patrols, either on foot or in our trucks. We called them Presence Patrols. Reminding people that those assholes who’d invaded their country ten years before were, in fact, still there.
Tons of random things happened on these patrols. We found IEDs, got ambushed, and arrested people who were smuggling weapons into our area. But most of the time, nothing at all happened. Just one boring walk after another.
On one of these pointless patrols, we were packed into our trucks and driving around in circles. We spent so much time patrolling the cramped confines of Kandahar City that we started to neglect the surrounding villages. So, of course, Gunny sent us out on an hours-long patrol to the area instead.
The outlying villages were the picture of poverty and misery. Ditches full of human waste and garbage lined every dusty dirt road. Most of the houses were made of crumbling mud bricks and had tin roofs. Almost nobody had running water or electricity. The way the Afghan tribal system worked meant that normally at least three generations of a family lived under one tiny, dilapidated roof.
Most of the roads were single-lane dirt tracks barely big enough for regular cars. It made driving our hulking, armored beasts nearly impossible—made even worse by the new rules we were made to follow that forced us to allow Afghans to pass us while we drove down the roads. Before this rule, which was meant to make us seem nicer to the Afghans, we could force traffic to stay well behind us to ensure a suicide car bomb wouldn’t get close to the convoy.
“This is fucking stupid,” Cali complained. He was gripping the wheel so hard his knuckles turned white.
“Hearts and Minds, man,” Grandpa said sarcastically.
“We have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow,” I joked. It was something an old team leader of mine used to say.
“Where are these guys even in a rush to go to? It’s not like they have fucking jobs,” Cali said.
It was probably true. Every single job project the Afghan government tried—all of which were bankrolled by the U.S.—failed miserably. The number one employment sector in Afghan was growing opium.
Before I could utter a smart-ass remark, one of the many cars that were zipping around us sped off at around fifty miles per hour and slammed right into a sheep that was crossing the road. The sheep cartwheeled through the air in a white blur and crumpled onto the side of the road. The car sped off as if nothing had happened.
“Holy fuck, did you guys see that?” Slim laughed over the radio.
“Poor sheep never saw it coming,” I said.
“Guys, that wasn’t a fucking sheep!” a medic named Pico screamed over the radio. Pico was filling in as our medic while Sal was on leave. “Pull the fucking truck up!” As our truck got closer, we saw the road was totally covered in blood and broken glass. On the side of the road lay a man wearing what had been a traditional white robe, now completely soaked with dark red blood. He wasn’t moving.
Before anyone could give any orders, Pico was out of the truck and sprinting toward the man. We quickly rushed after him to make sure he was safe.
Pico saw the man was still breathing and stabilized his neck. “He needs a medevac!” Pico yelled at Slim, who was trying to tell Spartan Base what exactly was going on.
“Spartan Base, this is Spartan two-two requesting dust-off,” Slim said calmly over the radio.
Dust-off was the universal term for a medical evacuation by helicopter. Slim turned to Pico and shook his head. The army wasn’t going to lift a finger for an Afghan civilian.
“Fuck!” Pico yelled. “He needs to get to a hospital now. Give me something, Slim.”
A large crowd of locals slowly began to surround us to see what we were doing. They looked on with concern as someone they undoubtedly knew barely clung to life in the hands of an American medic. A few Afghan police in pickup trucks pulled up to the scene to see why there was a massive crowd gathered.
“Hamid!” Slim yelled at our interpreter. “Tell those mother fuckers this guy needs to go to the hospital now or he’s going to die.”
Hamid dutifully translated. The Afghan police made a dismissing gesture with their hands and shook their heads.
“They say if you give them one hundred dollars they will transport him,” Hamid said with remorse.
“They want a fucking bribe to do their fucking job?” Slim screamed. He was getting to the point his voice was cracking, and his Florida accent started to come out.
“Tell them we will give them fuel!” Grandpa yelled. Fuel was nearly as rare as an Afghan who owned a toothbrush.
Hamid translated, and the Afghan police jumped out of the truck and ran over to the dying man.
“Tell them that they have to keep his neck stable and not to jostle him around too much,” Pico tried to explain to Hamid.
Before Hamid could translate, the police roughly dragged the man to the truck and chucked him into the bed as if he were luggage.
Cali grabbed a fuel jug off the back of our truck and gave it to the policeman who stayed sitting in the bed of the truck with the now probably dead man. The little green pickup truck sped off, kicking up dust and sending several civilians diving out of the way.
“Who the fuck doesn’t try to save one of their own?” Pico shook his head.
“They’re cops, for fuck’s sake!” Cali snapped. Cali always talked about becoming a cop when he got out of the military. It wasn’t because he was on a power trip or anything. Cali really believed in the criminal justice system. He saw the law as a black and white thing and truly wanted to “serve and protect.”
The surrounding Afghans came forward and hugged Pico. A few of them gave him the traditional kiss on the cheek. They shook the rest of our hands and smiled. I couldn’t help feeling bad for them as they turned and walked back to their slum. The very people that were supposed to be there to protect them, the Afghan police, wouldn’t even lift a finger to bring one of them to the hospital unless they were bribed. They were helpless to care for themselves and were caught in the middle of a three-way civil and international war, and utterly powerless to effect change in any area of their lives.
I could see Slim leaning against his truck watching a child try to kick dust over the dark blood puddle that stained the dirt road where the man had been mowed down by the careless driver. He walked over and helped the kid, using his large combat boots to smear over and dilute the blood. It was the most caring thing I had seen Slim do for a local during the entire deployment. Even though it only lasted a few seconds, it showed me that my friend and squad leader still had some humanity left in him.